Write what you know, or do a good fake-out

Write what you know. How often have you heard that advice?
Pfft. All. The. Time.
Which is all well and good if you’re writing about making chocolate chip cookies (not cheating, mind you, actually measuring the ingredients and mixing them together) or driving in a snowstorm, or checking out of a big-box store behind the person who is cleaning the pennies out of their little coin purse.
But what if:

  • You’ve never ridden a dragon.
  • You’ve never ridden a horse.
  • You’ve never fired a gun.
  • You’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.
  • You’ve never cast a spell of invisibility.
  • You’ve never changed into a wolf/tiger/bear/bird of prey/swan/vampire/gargoyle/(I could go on).
  • You’ve never lost a brother.
  • You’ve never been stalked.
  • Someone has never tried to kill you.

Granted, some things you can realistically do. Never fired a gun? Go to your local gun shop, gun range, or contact a sportsman’s club and ask for the experience. Never ridden a horse? I’m sure most horse owners wouldn’t mind helping you out, especially if you offer to muck out the stable or pay them in return.
Some of those experiences can be translated into others. Never ridden a dragon? How different do you suppose that is from riding a horse? Never seen the Grand Canyon? Um, okay, pictures or Google Earth don’t do it justice compared to seeing it in person, but you could probably give it a good go.
Sometimes you can find other people who have had an experience you want to write about. Talk to that person, get them to describe everything from physical sensations (including any tastes or smells) to emotional sensations.
Psst, it’s called research.
But what if you haven’t experienced something, and you don’t know anyone who has? What if it’s something you cannot experience, like, ever? Time-travel. Casting spells. Shape-shifting. Or maybe something you could experience but probably shouldn’t, like falling five stories from a building or driving a car off a cliff.
Remember all those hours of make-believe when you were a kid? You didn’t know it then, but you were practicing for the times when you need to pretend. Not just in real life, because face it, we’ve all been there with the fake genuine smile and feigned interest when your relative starts telling that story yet again.
We go into that pretend state when we write things that we really don’t know. The deeper we can imagine the experience, and the more we can extrapolate from what we have experienced first-hand, the more realistic our writing will be.
The character in my latest WIP lost her big brother. I’m the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother, nor have I lost a sibling. How could I write about her grief and guilt?
I have lost a parent. I know grief. But guilt? Hmm. I’ve gone through guilt with other things, like not offering to help the young mother in church struggling to control her three kids after her husband died. I should’ve offered to hold the fussy baby so she could deal with her other two children.
Even though I’ve never experienced loss like my character, I can use what I do know. I can remember the grief and guilt and translate it into my character. Actors do the same sort of thing. Our goal as writers is to bring our readers through the same experience as our characters.
We fake it good.
It’s worth it. The better you can fake it, the deeper the reader is pulled into the character’s experience. That translates to a better reader experience, which ultimately translates to more readers, because they tell their friends how good the story is.
How do you know you’ve written a good fake-out? When a beta reader tells you you’ve nailed something the reader actually experienced. Or when you go to book clubs and the readers relay their own similar experiences (this happens a lot with Ceone Fenn and her book, To Reap the Finest Wheat).
Like actors, we need to “get into character”. Some writers actually take acting classes to help them learn to do just that. Guess what? It means more well-rounded characters and more realistic scenes.
Our goal is to suck the reader into the story so they don’t want to surface until the end. We want them to cry, gasp, laugh, and dance for joy with our characters. Use what you know to imagine what you haven’t experienced.
Make-believe. It does a writer good.
Have a great weekend, everyone!

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